Daily Mirror 28th November 2003
DOING THE OAKEY COKEY
A little more than 23 years ago, Phil Oakey made a remarkable decision that was to transform his group The Human League. He split with his Sheffield band-mates Ian Marsh and Martin Ware and almost instantly turned the cult underground electro-boffins into champions of the early '80s synth-pop revolution.
With Marsh and Ware going off to form executive club class outfit Heaven 17, Oakey went in search of some much-needed glamour with vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley. And, just like the line of probably their most famous song, Jo was "working as a waitress in a cocktail bar". Or so the story goes, hence inspiring the new League's Don't You Want Me (the best selling single of 1981) and one of the great pop romances of the decade.
But in the years since, Oakey, now 48, has seen the group's fortunes rise and fall. There were multi-million selling successes on both sides of the Atlantic with the albums Dare and Human. Then, in the early '90s, Phil's relationship with Joanne ended as the their sound and look fell out of fashion in the wake of Grunge and Britpop.
The League suffered but endured and have become fashionable again in recent years with Madonna and Moby citing them as an influence. A 1998 comeback tour with Culture Club brought fans old and new out of the make-up room. And their tunes have been revived by producer Richard X for hits by Kelis and Liberty X.
Their 2001 album Secrets ranks with their best work, although it sank when their record company went bust. They've enjoyed a club hit with Hard Times and a recent Greatest Hits collection underlined their status as club-based pioneers.
For anyone else, all this would present a cause for celebration. But Phil is the sort who finds a cloud around every silver lining.
"It's a bit deadly because you lose anything to fight against," he complains of the League's new-found popularity.
"Part of why we have survived is that we always knew some people - group members and old managers - would be crowing at our demise. That gave us a gang mentality and determination to keep going.
"But now it's quite hard to cope with no one wanting to be nasty to us. I'm not sure it's good for creativity. Sadly even our rivalry with Heaven 17 has passed. We see each other from time to time and remember the real laughs we had together. We can't even keep that hatred up."
Although Phil's downbeat attitude is partly tongue-in-cheek, he admits that he has suffered from periods of depression.
"It was the doctor who first told me I was depressed," he admits. "I went to her because I wasn't feeling right, finding it difficult to cope. It was a surprise when she said, ‘Mr Oakey, I think you're depressed'. It had never occurred to me and that was quite depressing to find out.
"I had a couple of periods of it - the classic stuff of going into a house and seeing a picture I'd hung up on the wall and thinking, "Well, who is it for? Who am I trying to impress? What am I working for?'
"That took a bit of sorting out. I needed to have a think for a while. I saw three or four psychiatrists and had a couple of sessions on Prozac.
"That made working hard, Prozac made it difficult for me to relax. I was staying near the King's Road and it made me spend my money too easily. I'd walk up Sloane Square and look in the window of Armani and see a coat and just buy it. I could have bankrupted myself if that had gone on much longer." Phil traces the start of his psychological problems to when the girls joined and he became "the band's dad". He now has good working and personal relationships with both Sulley, now 40 and single, and Catherall, 41.
Joanne is married with a young son and Phil is horrified by the suggestion that
there may be a lingering sexual chemistry in their live act.
"I don't think there ever has been. We're too busy doing our jobs," he claims. "If a photographer asks Susanne or Joanne to put their arm around me, they just say, "No, I've got a husband or a boyfriend who isn't going to like it'. I think, "Fair enough'."
When he and Joanne split, his midlife crisis and bouts of depression increased as he considered his attitude to having children. He has a new girlfriend, 31-year-old computer operator Mia, but it's unlikely they will have a family of their own.
"I don't want children, I don't understand having children," he says. "I'm like John Cleese in the old Monty Python banker's sketch when the guy comes looking for charity money and he says, "What's in it for me?'
"To me, having children is like walking into a shop and saying, "I'll take anything you want to give me - I don't care how it turns out. Oh, and here's my bank account number - take as much money as you want'."
Oakey still lives comfortably in the centre of Sheffield, in a nice semi three minutes from the Gatecrasher nightclub where he is a regular.
"When we were at our height," he remarks, "if someone my age had walked into a club, everyone would have gone, "What's he doing here?' But the kids don't care these days. They are there for the music."
He admits that in the past he acted the aloof pop star and didn't devote enough time to his partners. But Mia has brought him down to earth.
"The first time she met me she just laughed in my face. She said, ‘Are you the bloke out of that group?'
"I'm not sure it's been good for my work. Relationships take time. You have to devote a lot of effort and time to them. Because of the mistakes I've made in the past, I try to carve out time to make sure it works. I won't open the computer at weekends. I pick her up from work and take her out for a coffee so we can have a proper talk.
"Oh, dear," he groans. "I must sound like one of those soft American TV shows."
Regrets? You could say Phil Oakey has had more than just a few.
He wishes he'd invested his money more wisely. He wishes the group had been more commercial and exploitative. He wishes that they had got enough money to move to Hollywood, chat up film producers and move into writing and recording soundtracks.
He regrets getting older and losing his hair because it means he looks like "a weird drag queen" if he puts on too much make-up. "And I really did use to love all that," he confesses.
Still he mustn't grumble... Well, not too much anyway.
"I'm quite pleased we're still going after 25 years," he says. "It's not at all bad for a pure pop band. We don't have to keep up with modern developments. It's pretty obvious who the audience are - a synth-pop-'80s-gay crowd. We just do the stuff as close to the original and even use the old drum machine.
"The great thing about our diehard fans is that they seem to distribute themselves around the audience really well. They don't just stand at the front and jump up and down. They go round the whole hall and get everybody jumping up and down."
So there's something to be happy about, then?
"Being happy?" he asks. "Now that is a strange idea."